Thursday, June 3, 2010

Synthetic life, the next gold rush?

It's on! Genetic scientist Craig Venter and his team recently announced that they have successfully created a living organism using synthesized DNA designed on a computer and inserted into a yeast cell infrastructure.

The debate is already raging about what limits society, through government should put on such research and development. This is one of the cases where the debate is moot. The promise is too great. You can't put this genie back in the bottle.

An ambitious genetic scientist doesn't need Venter's research notes, equipment, support or government sanction. The general approach is already public knowledge and Venter has proven it can be done. That's all they need, and there's a lot to be ambitious about. Other scientists have been mapping genomes for years and lately have been literally scrubbing the ocean to find and catalogue new single celled organisms that perform potentially very valuable functions.

Living cells are like tiny little factories, but without the smokestacks. They produce all manner of chemicals, and genetic research can produce the code that instructs them in exactly how it's done. With a little more research you can code new functions and create living organisms that don't currently exist in nature. One could create organisms that create gas-tank ready fuels, eliminating the refinery process. One wouldn't have to mine for chemicals and minerals, just feed the bacteria, algae or mold and let them do the work.

There are real dangers, but there are also dangers in putting up road blocks and obstructions. This is not nearly as difficult as creating nuclear weapons. It will not be contained or controlled. Do we want to leave the development of this technology to Iran, Venezuela, China, North Korea? As I said, all the world's scientists, professional and amateur need is the knowledge that it can be done. They already have that.

The plus side far outweighs the potential pitfalls. Vaccines will be produced in hours instead of months. Raw materials can be grown instead of extracted. The garbage in our landfills could be used to feed organisms that produce valuable new products.

Whether the United States makes good use of this new knowledge or not, it will be put to use. We can be producers or we can be customers. That's the real choice.